Alireza Firouzja is an Iranian chess prodigy. He won the Iranian championship at age 12. (Supplied)

By Payam Younesipour

December 9, 2020

A diplomatic stand has been taken against discriminatory practices in Iranian chess by the World Chess Federation (FIDE). The motion passed on Saturday, December 5 gave the green light to imposing “targeted punishments” on Iran if the country continues to violate the Fide Charter, though it stopped short of committing to a full suspension of Iran from international tournaments.

Managers of the Iranian Chess Federation and media linked to the Revolutionary Guards have hailed this as a victory, while chess commentators still believe Iran is on the brink of a global ban. Who is correct?

Last month chess champion Nigel Short, vice president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), told IranWire the country was at risk of a blanket ban from competing at world events because of its ongoing discriminatory policies. These include banning Iranians from playing against Israelis, refusing to uphold FIDE’s policies of equal rights for all players (including would-be female players who do not wear the hijab) and “political interference” in the sport.

Short and English Chess Federation delegate Malcolm Pein tabled a motion calling for tougher measures to be taken against Iran, supported by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkavich and the rest of the federation’s council. It read: “Any failure of the Iranian Chess Federation to request their players compete against all countries in FIDE before the next GA, or any future boycott by an Iranian player, will automatically result in the Iranian Chess Federation’s suspension from all FIDE activities.”

During the General Assembly on Saturday, a motion by the English Chess Federation reminded delegates of a string of recent events that have tarnished the Iranian Chess Federation’s reputation on the international stage. Among them were the departure of Iranian chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja, who took asylum in France because of the Islamic Republic’s ban on competing against Israelis, multiple instances of Iranian chess players withdrawing from competitions, and instances in other sports where Iran’s boycott of Israel has breached the rules of the International Olympic Committee. Those present were asked to resolve that any further breach from January 2021 would result in a “mandatory suspension” of Iran from FIDE activities.

The resolution was supported by the Chess Federation of Canada, whose delegate Hal Bond wrote: “It is with a heavy heart that we tackle this unpleasant matter, particularly when it means taking action against such an exceptional chess power as Iran. But we cannot ignore their behavior and we must not accept it. These actions insult the very essence of our values. What is worse is the use of their own website to politicize and even glamorize these boycotts. The proposed resolution is… like a final yellow card.”

In its response the Iranian Chess Federation said any talk of suspension would be “a heavy blow to the beliefs of the young generation” and “will change the interest of Iranian youth in this field and will cause irreparable damage to Iranian chess and finally to the chess of the whole world”. It claimed Iranian chess players who chose not to participate were doing so “for personal reasons”. Seyed Reza Saleh Amiri, head of Iran’s National Olympic Committee, also weighed in to make the same point and ask for the issue to be set aside at the GA.

The final motion, tabled by FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich, asked Iran “as well as other national chess federations” to instruct all its registered players “to respect the principles of the Olympic Movement and FIDE Charter.”

It added that it urged Iran in particular “to make sure there are no further incidences of boycotts… at FIDE official events; that officials and players refrain from making comments of a discriminatory nature; and that the federation website is no longer used as a medium to express political views that are in conflict with the FIDE Charter. Such incidents will compel FIDE to impose targeted punishments that may harm chess players.”

Notably it also gave its full authority to Council to impose “any necessary and proportionate restrictive measures” on the Iranian Chess Federation and its officials if needed. The motion was overwhelmingly passed by 107 of 162 votes.

How Was the Warning Received in Iran?

On Monday, December 7, the official website of the conservative newspaper Kayhan published an article headlined “British and Canadian arrows hit a rock”, and stated: “The vice president’s efforts in this field were unsuccessful and the [threat of] suspension of Iranian chess was eliminated.” It went on to point out that six months ago, Iran Chess Federation acting president Farhad Nikoukhesal, had written to FIDE stressing that Iran had not breached any rules and Iranian chess players were acting of their own accord – despite the fact that multiple Iranian players have testified to international media that they withdrew for fear of reprisal.

Another Iranian media outlet with links to the Revolutionary Guards, the Rah-e Dana Information Network, claimed in a write-up of the GA that “The British conspiracy against Iran has been discredited”. It also said there was no threat of suspension and quoted Mohsen Samizadeh, acting secretary of the Iranian Chess Federation, as saying: “Mr. Nigel Short’s plan was completely rejected and the suspension issue was not discussed at all.”

The national ISNA news agency covered the news with an interview with Mohsen Samizadeh, and repeated a statement by him that read: “The president of the Algerian Federation harshly attacked Mr. Short. The president of the Malaysian federation also called the plan very wrong, and pointed out that Russians are not playing with Ukrainians.

By contrast, chess news websites have pointed out that although Dvorkovich had removed the direct reference to suspension from the motion, it still sanctioned any “necessary and proportionate restrictive measures” to be taken against Iran in future. Pein and Short withdrew their motion in favour of Dvorkovich’s, agreeing that it was “a yellow card, not a red card” to Iran.

The vice-president of the World Chess Federation wrote on Twitter minutes after the end of the voting on the “fine against Iran” plan: “The move by the chairman of the FIDW was strong. Sanctions and discrimination are intolerable.” He also posted a photo on Twitter showing that his proposal was approved by more than 74 percent of the members in the assembly. Tweeting on the outcome of the vote in the aftermath, Short said FIDE delegates had acted “decisively” and added: “Boycotts and discrimination will not be tolerated”. What the Islamic Republic’s next move will be remains to be seen.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.